The Devastating Effects of Perfectionism (and how to fix it)
The devasting effects of perfectionism in our work cultures, in our education system and on a personal level are so huge, that it needs to be addressed. Again. And again.
I have shared before that I am a recovering perfectionist and how I try and move past this shield of fake protection.
You know how it is, when you shine a light on something in your own life, you suddenly see it everywhere you look?
At work once, we went for a walk with some children in strollers, and when we came back we realized that one of the children had lost a shoe. This shoe could have been dropped on any part of our walk.
I decided to go look for it, by backtracking the steps we had walked. What I did was tune my brain into all things red (because the shoe was red) and I spotted the shoe long before I got close to it.
I tell you this story because it takes us shining a light on something to be able to make a change.
What is perfectionism?
I’m pulling in some help here to get different people’s definition of this way of being.
Straight out of Jill Badonsky’s fabulous book “The Nine Modern Day Muses (and a Bodyguard) Jill writes:
“Peace of mind and creative freedom come with the release of perfection.
Perfectionism becomes a problem when:
We work on something over and over trying to get it perfect but are never satisfied.
We have an inner tyrant that does not allow us to feel the joy of the creative process.
We do not even attempt anything creative because we do not want to encounter moments of ineptness.
We do not begin because we think we need all the right expertise, all the right equipment and the perfect time and space in order to begin.
We give up easily and early because we encounter difficulty or something we weren’t expecting.”
The amazing Brené Brown says this about perfectionism in her brilliant book “The Gifts of Imperfection:
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.
Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please, perform, perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused - How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused - What will they think?”
The wonderful Elizabeth Gilbert writes this about perfectionism is her fantastic book about creativity “Big Magic”:
“We don’t have time for perfect. In any event, perfectionism is unachievable. It’s a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death. Perfectionism stops people from completing their work, yes - but even worse, it often stops people from beginning their work. Perfectionists often decide in advance that the end product is never going to be satisfactory, so they don’t even bother trying to be creative in the first place.
Perfectionism is a particularly evil lure for women, who, I believe, hold themselves to an even higher standard of performance than do men. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified.”
The devastating effects of perfectionism
Personally, perfectionism has kept me playing small when it comes to owning my knowledge. It has meant I haven’t shown myself and shared my knowledge publicly. It has kept me frustrated and at times feeling lost. And maybe worst of all, it stopped me pursuing creative work when I was young.
I have also worked in places where the perfectionism of one or more colleagues has created a culture of fear and scarcity. With pretty devastating results. Some of those results have been people being sick with stress and going to work every day feeling they could never live up to expectations.
Creativity and perfectionism are opposites. Creativity is an imperfect, messy and chaotic process by definition.
Just think if Lady Gaga had given up when she was 19.
What if Eminem, David Bowie, Maya Angelou and all other amazing creatives hadn’t risked failure and criticism and brought their art to the world anyway.
We all start at the beginning. We all fail and make mistakes. Because we are imperfect.
Here in Denmark, the highest mark in school you can get is 12. And because the focus in our education system is on getting good marks and not the effort you put in, teenage girls (especially) are making themselves ill trying to get 12 in every subject. It has become a “thing” here.
Striving for perfection is making us stressed and ill.
How to win the fight against perfectionism
We must keep talking about how we can help ourselves and each other having hard conversations.
How we must all learn self-kindness, even self-compassion.
And how we must shift our paradigm from results-driven focus, to get real about what life (and creativity) is, a process of making imperfect decisions and being imperfect.
In our workplaces
To win the fight against perfectionism in our workplaces, we must create a safe space, where vulnerability is encouraged. And not just with words or good intentions, because it sounds good. But with a detailed, well-thought-out plan of how this looks in action.
How does a work culture go from “I’m right and you’re wrong” to “I will do what I can to make you feel seen and heard, and respected when you make mistakes”?
We also have to stop seeing it as a good thing to put in 50-70 hour work weeks. That you are not popular with the boss unless you devote your life to your job, while also kissing her behind in the process.
Remember that perfectionism is fear. Fear of what other people think of you. So, work cultures where mistakes are punished, and people are treated differently, are toxic.
In our education systems
Omg, I have so much to say about our education system.
I believe it’s outdated. I think it’s crazy we are still mainly educating our kids with bum-in-seat learning and evaluating intellect according to a “best-mark” system.
This is not how you encourage creative thinking. Or creative action. Yet, we want innovation! It’s bonkers!
If we are not allowed to make mistakes as children, when are we?
We really ought to praise kids for making mistakes. It means they are trying and learning.
On a personal level
I will continue to recover from my own perfectionistic behaviour. I know it has it’s rooted in my childhood and it won’t change unless I consciously work on it.
One of the reasons I’m so passionate about the damage of perfectionisms is because I had no clue I was a perfectionist until I trained as a Kaizen-Muse Creativity Coach. No clue.
That’s mad. It was such a revelation. Many things suddenly made sense to me.
This is why we must keep this conversation going.
It’s going to take a mind-shift change, a change in our beliefs and in our attitude.
And it’s going to mean a shift from focusing on results to focusing on the journey and the process.
It most certainly means changing believing we are weak and stupid if we are wrong, to believing we are brave and cool for not knowing everything.
You can learn more about how not to let creative blocks, such as perfectionism, stop you from doing creative work in my new e-course “How To Be More Creative - & discover yourself in the process”.
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I hope you’ll join me in the journey of trying to live with, forgive and even cherish the mistakes we make. Our totally human, and insanely imperfect mistakes.